5 Tips For Designing Mobile Experiences For Couples

Couples have their own special ways of communicating. Here, Avocado cofounder Jenna Bilotta explains how to accommodate them.

5 Tips For Designing Mobile Experiences For Couples
Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)

It was an ordinary tweet, until it wasn’t.


It’s happened to everyone: You “reply all” to an email meant for only one person, accidentally send a private tweet to all your followers, or quickly respond to a group text with something only meant for your other half. I’ve done it in the most spectacularly public way, tweeting about my doctor appointment follow-up, instead of sending an SMS.

Unintentional public broadcasts are a new hazard we’ve created by increasing the speed and variety of the ways in which we communicate. Mobile technology, always-on social networks, and real-time communication have fundamentally changed how we create and interact with social circles (I bet your Instagram audience is different from your Facebook friends), and we’re all doing our best to keep up.

Even with all of this incredible change, one of the things that has remained consistent through these digital communication revolutions is a near-ubiquitous choice to elevate, communicate, share, and collaborate within one particular social arrangement: the couple.

Think about it. For every new group communication method that arises (Facebook, Twitter, SMS, Instagram, Google Docs), people try adapting it for private use with their most important person. We attempt to use these mediums to share private information using tools specifically designed for the widest possible reach. Digital communication with your partner should be like being alone together in your living room, not whispering in each other’s ears at a crowded party.

That’s why we built Avocado. It seemed like such an obvious solution for such a common problem. We built Avocado from a blank slate with one central product philosophy: Create things that bring a couple closer together and make the daily things they already do easier and more delightful. We set out to make something fun, intimate, and above all, private. We focused on features that would help a couple feel more connected long after interacting with the app itself. In short, we wanted to elevate your most vital relationship in your digital life, just like it is in your daily life. Along the way, we did tons of research that yielded lessons for any startup looking to design for couples.


1. You don’t know until you try … and test and research

Big plans, great sentiment … now what? How do you create a product that is specific enough for couples to not require explanation but flexible enough to grow with all types of important two-person relationships? How do you capture the intimacy of “home” on a smartphone?

We initially approached the problem with a utilitarian slant for admittedly selfish reasons. During our home renovation project, my husband and I would constantly reach out to each other through SMS, email, or IM to coordinate on ideas. We had lists in Google Docs and Evernote, appointments in various digital calendars and even on slips of paper … but we simply kept missing each other’s responses, updates, and additions. We were trying to use technology designed to allow you to communicate generically with everyone for our most important stuff. It wasn’t working. We started talking to our “couple” friends as well, asking about the crazy patchwork of technologies they used to keep up. One of our more tech-savvy friends had even written a Chrome extension to alert him whenever his wife posted anything to him on any channel. Too hard!

So we started with what would make our own lives easier: shared lists, messaging, and photos. But we didn’t stop there. We talked to couples. Lots of couples. By doing this, we were able to map out three (mostly) common stages of a romantic relationship:

Courtship: You have a toothbrush and your Brunch Pants™ at the other person’s house, but you’re still mostly in separate living spaces. There is a strong desire to stay in constant communication. Photos and messaging are the most important way to stay closely connected, as well as date-planning activities, including location, scheduling, etc.

Cohabitation: When couples take the plunge to move in together, communication needs change dramatically. It suddenly becomes much more about shared responsibilities and organization of household needs. Messaging is still important, but easily shared lists (on paper or in the cloud) become the organizational hub of the home.


Caretaking: Many couples eventually end up caring for children or aging parents, which makes scheduling a critical component to staying sane. (“Who’s getting the kids from soccer practice today?”) When couples are caring for other family members, they often have to “divide and conquer” and work as a team, which is pretty unique to this phase of life. This dictated the need for smart defaults that err on the side of “both” but with additional flexibility to separate responsibilities by both attendance and alerts–just like in life.

One more important piece of early user research we gathered: One person usually leads the relationship as its “keeper/organizer.” They are also usually responsible for coordinating the household. But whenever the other partner successfully helped with the household or memory-making, both reported more positive feelings. This is why we did things like adding images to our lists: To enable the “non-keeper” partner to take initiative where they wouldn’t before, and do so with more confidence and a higher chance of success. One grocery trip can take an annoying chore off the other partner’s plate, creating lasting positive feelings.

2. Couples are everywhere. And each one is unique.

Some of our early couples said that they’d like to use Avocado with a best friend, a mother-in-law, and in one case, even an ex-wife. People have all sorts of different communication needs in their important relationships, and we always imagined that couple software should extend and flex to support any and all types of important two-person relationships. This is why we’ve kept the language in Avocado light and fun, not too sappy or romantic, and of course, gender neutral (we don’t ask for gender at all–it shouldn’t matter). For instance, we use the word “boo” to describe your partner before the app knows their name. “Boo” is short, cheeky, expressive, intimate, non-gendered and neutral enough to allow people to imprint many different kinds of relationship statuses onto it.


3. Make it fun, not another chore

Even though we know the biggest impact for our target couples would be the utilitarian features that allow collaboration and organization of a shared life, we also know that couples don’t want to be all work and no play. For every utility feature (we refer to them as our “veggies”), it was important for us to infuse it with various forms of delight. The photo emoticons are a great example. Forget “perfect” profile photos; your better half loves all the different faces you make, and couples need the freedom to express all the facets of themselves for a more truly intimate form of digital communication. By setting custom face photos for any small string of text (OMG, LOL, etc.) and automatically replacing them in the message stream, we bring a bit more personality and intimacy to the communication that couples need to do every day.

4. Find a digital way to capture all those little nonverbal moments

Millions of tiny, nonverbal moments pass between couples when they are together. You might put your hand on your partner’s shoulder as you walk by to let them know you are thinking about them. Maybe you are at a crowded party and your boo gives you “the look” from across the room–and you know exactly what that means. Maybe you seal agreements and compromises with a fist bump. And of course, there are the hugs and kisses.

We wanted to find a way to create a physical gesture using technology alone. Just like at home, people need a simple gesture that lets their boo know they were thinking of them, and canned text was too impersonal. With the goal of replicating some of this nonverbal communication, we created a “hug” feature–yep, you actually hug your phone–and it instantly became our second-most used feature (more than sending photos). A creative solution for couples absolutely requires providing support for both verbal and nonverbal communication.


5. Allow room for growth

We’ve created a solution where people can feel free to be exactly who they are around their most important person. We’re interested in learning more about how couple’s behaviors will form our product, as well as how our product might change and influence a couple’s relationship with communication–digital and otherwise. And like any relationship–whether between two people or a product and its user–we’ll have to adapt and grow as the partnership evolves.

Credit: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)